The other day I was chatting with a client who was telling me about how she can’t wait to retire. Now, this might not seem strange; but in this case, my client has yet to begin her career or even complete her program.

“Seniors never complain about feeling underconfident or anxious,” she said. You never hear them talking about feeling insecure or stressed out. I want that.”

I wondered if there was truth to her statement. Are seniors, on the whole, more confident? Or do they perhaps just not express their feelings of insecurity? It’s certainly a less accessible population both electronically and generationally when it comes to disclosure, so it makes it difficult to hear raw, personal accounts of senior’s vulnerability. I can’t imagine it being easy to experience the multiple losses that come with aging—identity, mobility, companionships, cognitive ability. But I think what my client was referring to was the confidence she saw in able-bodied, cognitively-healthy seniors (she’d previously met many of them during a former job at a tourism company). The kind that could afford—both financially and physically—to travel across the country.

“Confidence, Young Grasshopper…”

One of the most common fallacies we make when trying to understand human behaviour and help others is focusing on “problem” cases. We try to figure out what’s wrong, what’s broken, what needs to be fixed. And in doing so we neglect look explore what’s right, what’s working, and what we should be trying to replicate.

So what can we learn from people who consistently appear more confident and secure? What goes through their minds? How do they regard themselves?

Behold: My Rant.

As I’ve mentioned previously, anxiety is negatively correlated with confidence. The more confident we feel about a task (or about ourselves), the less anxious we feel. This all relates to expectations in the sense that if we have high expectations for ourselves (or perceive others to have high expectations for us), we are likely to feel less confident and therefore more anxious. Think about it. Easy task? High confidence. Difficult task? Confidence lowers. If I asked you to walk in a (relatively) straight line, and you weren’t under the influence, my guess is that you’d feel confident about it. If I praised you and told you you’ve achieved all you’re expected to and more, you’d probably feel pretty awesome about yourself.

Now let’s say I’ve raised the stakes and tell you to walk in a straight line with your eyes closed. And you don’t (I guarantee I wouldn’t…I’m notoriously a diagonal-walker). And I tell you you’re below average and not good enough and most people of your age and stature are able to walk in a straight line with their eyes closed like champs. You might feel twinges of defeat and shame (and wonder how I know such obscure statistics). Probably not to the point of entering a depression, though, as there might be other areas of your life where you feel confident and which contribute to a more stable sense of self-esteem, and maybe walking in a straight line with your eyes closed isn’t really that important to you. But now replace “walk in a straight line” with “achieve some form of post-secondary,” “have a respectable, lucrative career,” “be in a committed relationship or marriage,” “be independent from your parents,” “own a home,” “bear children,” “be a good parent and partner,” and “maintain a socially attractive appearance while doing it all,” and expectations are pretty darn high. These are the expectations we experience in young and middle adulthood. They might shift slightly from decade to decade, but for the most part we believe there are societal “success boxes” we must check in order to feel adequate. If not? We feel underconfident and less worthy.

Compare this to someone in later life who might still have their mobility and the financial freedom to travel. The socially understood expectations placed on them are generally much lower. Have your health? Wonderful! Can tell stories? Amazing! Think of how many times we describe people who are aging in terms of their physical and cognitive ability. “She still goes to the gym” or “He still completely has his mind!” We see them as “above average.” We revere and praise them.

“You Have a….Roommate?”

Now think about what we expect from people in their late 20’s and 30s: He’s still a student. She’s single. They’re still renting. They let themself go after the breakup. Fail.

To reiterate: As a result of implicit and explicit narratives in media and society, one is expected to have attended post-secondary, have a stable career with a lucrative income, be in a committed relationship that will lead to marriage if it hasn’t already, own a home—not an apartment, a home with a yard for the children that we’re also expected to have before a certain magical age, while maintaining an extensive social network, attractive appearance, healthy diet and exercise routine, while travelling extensively and being completely mentally and emotionally stable.

No effing wonder we’re underconfident.

This dominant narrative leaves those who don’t follow it feeling like they’ve “failed” at life. So many of my clients experience feelings of shame, worthlessness, grief and anxiety because they’re “too old for kids” or “are in an unhappy marriage.” Although the grief, hurt or anxiety might remain–societal pressures or not–chances are the shame and worthlessness would be less so if they didn’t believe “happy marriage” or “mother” were necessary components of a “successful existence.” You get me? That narrative is reinforced in media and advertising, within our peers, on Facebook, in movies and books. It’s all around us; it’s inescapable; and hey, it’s enjoyable much of the time. Just not when we’re comparing ourselves and feeling inadequate as a result.

See the Kool-Aid, Recognize it’s Kool-Aid, Don’t Beat Yourself Up for Wanting The Kool-Aid, But Trust that Not Everyone’s Drinking It, and It Might Not Be As Delicious As You Expect.  

If you look between the lines of those dominant narratives that suggest anything less than what I describe is a failure, you’ll see the “outliers.” Millions upon millions of outliers. But we don’t hear or read those stories. They don’t parallel the fairy tales we’re told from a young age. They don’t fit with the predictable script we’re all socialized to follow. With the internet, we’re more able to access some of these “rebellious” narratives. We’re able to form coalitions (support groups, childless or unemployed friends, etc.), and experience compassion, understanding, and acceptance. We’re able to put words to our experiences and have them validated by another. We’re given the message that we actually might be OK. Maybe we haven’t “failed.” That we’re in this together. And through the sharing of these stories, through the sense of acceptance, belonging and community that comes from shared experience, something begins to happen. Shame begins to dissipate, like frost on a windshield. Our foggy, narrowed view begins to clear and expand. Space opens up for opportunity, for a different way of viewing ourselves and viewing the world.

“When I Was a Kid…”

Another piece to take into account is that this dominant narrative is (slowly) shifting. During a different generation, it was much more financially and competitively-feasible to attend post-secondary or purchase a home, or stay married (albeit often unhappily). But that generation didn’t have the same competition, resources, expectations, distractions, temptations, options, and neuroses that ours does. Consequently, as we continue to “rebel” against the Pleasantville story, “going against the grain” will be less stigmatized and shame-inducing.

Phrases like “Socially-Constructed Narrative” and “Dominant Social Norms” Bring Out My Inner Contrarian

The next time you’re feeling like “everyone’s” achieved some arbitrary milestone, or you’re not good enough because of (insert expectation here), ask yourself if there’s a chance you  might be focusing your attention on the dominant narrative. Ask yourself if there’s a way you might be able to read between the lines—connect with others who share a story similar to yours (Googling “support groups” or “forums” is a great start). Ask yourself how much of you desires to achieve whatever it is that you believe you have not for reasons that fall in line with your values, and how much of you desires to achieve whatever it is you believe you have not due to stories telling us it’s the “right” way to live. Trust me–I speak to many people who have done all of the above and are not happy. Remember your own opinion is ultimately the most influential, when it comes to deciding whether or not you’re meeting your expectations (which affects your self-esteem and confidence); remember to practise self-compassion in the process; and remember (everybody now!) that we’re all in this together :).